Instead of going to the dining room where I thought breakfast could have been served for me, I headed directly to the conservatory. I didn’t know what to expect. How many soldiers would be waiting for me in there? How likely were they to answer any of my questions? At this point, I was willing to accept whatever morsels of information the military were willing to throw at me. I was particularly hungrier for explanations about my parents and my obliged presence in the house. What did they want from me? I formulated a series of questions in my head in preparation, although they all boiled down to those two simple ones: What happened to my parents, and why had they brought me here? They obviously knew something, why not tell me? I was definitely going to ask them about my parents and I was not going to accept any more subterfuges or ‘I don’t knows’ dressed up in different fashions. For sure they had to know more than I did. If I could only have them telling me even a fraction of what they knew, I would surely be swimming in awareness and directionality.
I reached the ground floor without encountering anyone or hearing any activity at all. Other than my steps and my breathing, the house was silent. As if I were walking inside a dried-up corpse. A large decaying bird and I traversing its insides. How would I paint such a scene? Dark blues and greens, but would I be an illuminated centerpoint against them or an even darker blotch? Really, how to paint the silence?
I crossed the deserted lobby and entered into the corridor that I always associated with my father. Only three doorways, each one leading to a very different experience. On the right side of the corridor there was a door to the library. On the other side another door, a guardian protecting my father’s office. At the end of the corridor, two narrow French doors that led to the conservatory. The doors to the library and to my father’s office were closed. The ones to the conservatory were slightly ajar. Morning light escaped from the conservatory and into the corridor. The first meters of carpet closest to the conservatory had lost a long time ago their original deep red and veins of black.
The door to my father’s office was as dark and ominous as it had been any time I stood in front of it during my childhood, when in many occasions I would confront it. If I ever had to have a word with my father, this was the door separating me from his sullen bulk, the bully with a cubist nose and eyes exuding inexorable disappointment.
Not having seen anyone on the ground floor, it was easy to imagine the conservatory being empty. Especially since during my childhood I had learned to experience the conservatory as an space where I could be in solitude. I couldn’t recall ever seeing my father there. As for my mother, she loved plants and she likely spent some decent amount of time taking care of or directing others to care for her collection, but I almost never ran into her when I went there to read or to paint with the expectation of not being disturbed.
I opened the French doors and I was immediately engulfed by warmer and humid air, and assaulted with the sour stench of mildew and decaying plants. Not the dry and sweet smell that I associated with this corner of the house. Only seconds later the unpleasantness faded away and the conservatory was once again the welcoming scenario where the leisurely afternoons of my childhood had taken place.
Two paths to the right and to the left from the entrance followed the wall, whereas a third and wider path went straight ahead towards the center of the conservatory, where a fountain was surrounded by a generous amount of open space. I liked to scatter lots of my paintings around the fountain and then rearrange them as a puzzle that would reveal an unbearably meaningful piece of art. Despite such an artistic resolution never taking place, most of what I knew about composition I learned through those experimentations with collage.
A table had been positioned by the fountain. Marcus and another soldier were sitting down around the table, looking at me.
“Please come and join us. Here, have some surprisingly decent coffee,” Marcus said, pouring some coffee from a jar and into a cup, both of which were plain and battered, a set that could have been in use by the service but that would have never been on our family’s table.
I sat down on the only other chair around the table. There was a roll left in a wicker basket. The plates from their finished breakfast only contained breadcrumbs, some smears of mustard and the skins of sausages.
“I haven’t eaten anything yet,” I said.
“There will be time for you to eat. For now have some coffee, and please help yourself to the bread roll.” I should have felt indignation for such deference towards me in my own house, but I didn’t care at all. I was beyond offense, beyond being one with and for the house.
I had a sip of coffee. It tasted foreign, a thicker and sandier brew, much better than I had expected. I brought the cup to my lips again and enjoyed each sip, while looking at the faces of the two soldiers, both portraying a mask that combined tiredness, expectation, and fear. They were in control of this situation, this gathering in a sheltered conservatory, but maybe they were as lost, confused and unsure as I was.
“I know that you want us to tell you exactly what happened to your parents, and why you’re here, and how both things might be connected,” Marcus said.
I nodded, putting my empty cup down on the table.
“Unfortunately, I cannot tell you that. Not directly. Instead I will tell you a story and I would like to know how you feel about it, about this story. Is that alright?”
I nodded again.